Cover Water — Catch Trout

by | Nov 10, 2019 | 21 comments

John crossed the bridge with his head down. He watched each wading boot meet a railroad tie before picking up his other foot for the next step. Cautiously, he walked the odd and narrow gait required when walking the tracks. And with nothing but air between each massive railroad tie, he could see the river below.

I’ve never known anyone to fall on a railroad bridge. I suppose you couldn’t fall through. But you’d surely break a leg or twist an ankle with one wrong step on that slick wood.

So I stood by the “No Trespassing” sign, next to the edge of the bridge, and watched my friend slowly make his way toward me. He looked disappointed. And when gravel filled in the gaps between ties, when John was back on solid ground, his head stayed down.

“Did you catch a Namer?” I asked with feigned enthusiasm.

“Ha! Nope, I surely didn’t do that,” John said, waving his hand and brushing off my next question.”

I took the cue and remained silent, waiting for John to speak again.

I turned and joined his walk in the opposite direction, down a wide path through a stand of tall pine trees. And the canyon wind did what it always does through there. The branches and the deep bed of pine needles soaked up the sounds of life and created a calm hush, while the wind at the treetops formed an amplified whisper that competed with a river rushing below. I was just about to comment on all of this, when John finally spoke.

“I don’t even want to know how many you caught, Dom. Because it’ll piss me off.”

I began another reply, but John continued . . .

“I started at the lower tip of the island, because I’ve done really well there before. And I caught three right away,” John said. “One was an upper-teens trout, and he fought really hard.”

“Nice.” I nodded.

“But then . . .“ John motioned with exasperation. “Nothing else all morning.”

I nodded again.

“I mean, I might have had a couple more hits, but I’m not even sure about that,” John said. “You know how it is.”

“I do,” I replied.

Then I stopped and looked at John. He noticed my pause, and turned to meet me.

“How far up did you fish?” I asked. “Did you get up to the second island?”

The pines creaked as John stared back up the path, imagining the river upstream.

“No. I just fished the first island,” he said.

“Both sides?” I asked.

John shook his head again. “No. Only the left side. Why? Do you think that wasn’t enough?” he asked.

“Well, you weren’t catching trout, right?” I asked rhetorically.

John sighed, and we walked again.

“Then yeah,” I said a few moments later. “I would have covered a lot more water.”

 

— — — — — —

John is an average fisherman. And he’s into the game as much as he can be. With three kids in three different sports, a job that has him traveling too much and a home with an unfinished addition that’s dragged on now for a couple years, John is lucky to get to the river once a month. So when he does get out, his skills are average. Because his river time is so sparse, he clings to whatever tactics worked last time, and he fishes the same water that produced before. His limited hours on the water have John floundering a bit when the trout are difficult — and trout are usually difficult.

Sometimes I feel bad around John, because my fishing life is the opposite of his. I spend hundreds of days a year on the water, either guiding or fishing. One of the best streams in the world is out my back door and down the hill. So trout rivers are part of my daily life, and I realize that’s a privilege. It’s also an advantage.

I witness the habits of our favorite fish, day in and day out. And the best piece of advice I may offer to any trout fisherman is this: Cover water and catch trout. Can it really be that simple? Yes.

But here’s the caveat: Covering water means fishing it well. And of course, it takes a lot of casts and mistakes to get to the point when you know that you’ve fished a piece of water well. But when you have — then move on.

At What Pace?

How much you should move is completely dependent on the river and the method you are fishing.

When nymphing, I often focus on a single lane of perhaps twenty feet. I refine my drifts through one lane until I see that the sighter shows me a good ride with the nymphs in the strike zone. Then after a few solid drifts, I move on. Often that move is close, to the outside of the same lane or over a foot or two. Other times, I might step upstream and fish a prime lane that leads through an undercut bank, working to refine my drifts in that lane. I like to work all the good nymphing water in front of me, and when I get to the next flat water or slow pool, I jump up to the next riffle or run.

While fishing streamers, I cover more water. I fish the long flies while constantly wading a river in motion. I pick a piece of the stream and target the best structure. And my feet rarely stop moving. I may not go far with each step, but I’m continually shifting and positioning myself for the next angle — the next cast. Because each likely lie gets only a couple of looks with my streamer.

Dry flies can be a little different. If the trout give me targets on top, then I might fish a lot slower. Like most anglers, I enjoy the challenge of fooling a rising trout. So if a good presentation is rejected a few times, as the fly drifts drag free over the riser, I might change flies once or twice.

More often, I fish dries at about the same pace as I fish nymphs. I like to prospect with dry flies, working the likely holding water while keeping a keen eye for my next rising target. While prospecting, if I achieve a few good drifts in one seam, I move on.

 

 

Too Much and Not Enough

Regardless of the fly type, our goal is to find hungry and willing trout.

John found success in the first spot he fished. And that happens to him a lot. His mistake was to stay on and try to make too much out of one piece of water. He covered, at most, a hundred-and-fifty yards of river in that left channel which is only forty feet across. And he took four hours to do so.

There were probably a hundred trout in that left channel, of various sizes. But how many were hungry? How many did John spook? And how many were turned off by inaccurate drifts the first couple times through?

READ: Troutbitten | Get a Good Drift, Then Move On

Cover water and catch trout. It doesn’t mean flying upstream, forever chasing the next perfect piece of river with a grass-is-greener approach. It means that whatever piece of water you are fishing, fish it well. And then move on.

If you want to cherry pick the best spots all morning and cover a half mile of river, then do that. But at each spot, cover it. Fish it until you get the looks that you want to see. Give trout the best chance to view the fly as natural and available food. That’s your job. And it’s the trout’s job to eat it. And when he doesn’t? Tip your cap and move on. Don’t stubbornly hang on in one spot just because you know trout are there. Sure they are — but if they aren’t eating, there isn’t much you can do about it. So find another target.

Cover water and catch trout. Think about that the next time things are slow. Stay disciplined. Do what it takes to get good drifts, and then be ambitious enough to keep wading.

Fish hard, friends.

 

Enjoy the day.
Domenick Swentosky
T R O U T B I T T E N
domenick@troutbitten.com

 

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Domenick Swentosky

Central Pennsylvania

Hi. I’m a father of two young boys, a husband, author, fly fishing guide and a musician. I fish for wild brown trout in the cool limestone waters of Central Pennsylvania year round. This is my home, and I love it. Friends. Family. And the river.

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21 Comments

  1. Well said Dom. I have a buddy I fish with that consistently outfishes me. He is disciplined, efficient, and uses just a handful of flies and approaches really well. And….he covers water in the way you describe. When I fish with other friends I am amazed at how long they will stay in one spot doing the same thing over and over. It’s like a 6th sense you develop when you know you have effectively presented your fly and it’s time to move on. That’s certainly true in life as well.

    Reply
  2. Covering water is at the forefront of my fishing strategy. I fished a section of stream yesterday for the 3rd time this year and things started off like they typically do…..a fish or two out of the usual spots and then I hit a long stretch of water where I just couldn’t get a bite. I knew fish were there before. I changed flies and weights with no luck. Debated heading back to the car and calling it a day. Was there melt off upstream dropping water temps? Bite window ended? I moved forward because I had the time and found success at another hole where the fish were eager to eat. I didn’t change my setup but by simply finding willing fish I upped my tally for the day. Somedays the solution is an easy change. Sometimes the solution never comes….Don’t be like John…..your learning curve will have a small slope….learn something new each time out but keep moving…..I should have tried a single fly in that section of water I was blanked…..next time…….nice work Dom

    Reply
  3. As another “John” with limited opportunities to fish and early in my experience of fly fishing, I very much appreciate the sensitivity with which you portray your character in this post. Being more experienced in other activities, I know how difficult it is to stay in touch with just how bewildering and frustrating the early learning curve can be. I was ready to throw the rod away at one point yesterday after bungling casts and tangling multiple times during the few precious hours I was able to get on the water. When that happens I stop, breathe deep, and tell myself the successes will ultimately be the sweeter for the effort invested. The tips guidance and encouragement I find in your work here have been fundamentally important and helpful for my maintaining my determination to fish hard, smarter and more effectively. Thanks again

    Reply
  4. I really like this piece,Domenick. I spent a few extra minutes looking at thee photos…trying to decide if they were photos or paintings.That good.
    I think my major fault ff is that i stay too long in one spot/area.This piece made me realize that I should move more

    Reply
  5. I think you wrote in another piece how a change in scenery can help with situations like this. Call me crazy, I’ve noticed trout behave much differently on the same river but only a few miles apart. Aside from physical changes the mental refresh those “fresh” pools provide is motivation enough to keep it moving.

    Reply
  6. Hell yea! Move on when your drifts are good and get no hits. I just came home from the Esopus creek . Caught a few average bows and a namer brown from the Ashokan broke me off! Dammit !!!

    Reply
    • Ouch!
      This begs the question:
      Would you rather not have hooked it?
      or
      Would you rather hooked and lost it?

      Reply
      • Definitely rather hook and lose. I feel lucky that I got a good look at him.

        Reply
        • Agree. Hope you get him next time.

          Reply
      • Definitely rather hook and loose. That’s still a thrill!

        Reply
  7. Thanks Dom for contributing to my growth as a fisherman. Being relatively new to fly fishing, I probably stay too long at spots I usually catch fish. A question regarding nymphing strategy: after making good drifts in the correct places, how many fly changes, if any, do you make before moving on?
    Thanks again.

    Reply
  8. Great article. I’m the complete opposite. One or two good drifts and I move on. I was told that if they don’t take the first time it is presented no use in showing it to them again. Maybe my drifts are not as good as I think.

    Reply
    • Hey Emmett,

      So, I understand that philosophy, but I only agree with it in part.

      I do agree that your best chance might be on the first look. However, while nymphing, the reality we are presented with is too challenging to get a perfect drift the first time.

      Consider one lane, right side of a pocket, water flowing around a rock. On my first drift through there, I am VERY lucky if I get jut the right drift. Instead, on my first couple drifts, I’m really just trying to find the strike zone — to see how deep and fast it is, and to learn a bit about the contours of the bottom. It might take 4-5 drifts, in the same lane, for me to learn enough about all those things to finally tuck my flies in at the right speed and angle, to establish the correct sighter angle and to lead just enough to stay in touch. So let’s say on the 6th or 8th drift I get it just right. That’s really the first time the trout has seen what he needs to. And when I know I got just the right drift, I repeat it a few times. Only then do I move on — or I change the fly.

      To me, refining the drift like that is the fun part of nymphing.

      Cheers.
      Dom

      Reply
      • Thanks for the reply. I never thought of it that way but putting it all together makes sense. I need to slow down a bit. Is this similar to how you would fish dry flies?

        Reply
        • Just to clarify, is this your same approach to dry fly fishing, multiple drifts in a particular seam? Or a good drift and move on?
          Thanks

          Reply
          • Well, yes sometimes. I kind of said it above, how I approach dries a couple different ways. Streamers too. But yes, I want to see good drifts, with whatever fly, and then I move on.

            Cheers.

  9. I think this needs printing out and public posting.

    On my local stream that happens to have spawning salmon and browns, and becomes more and more inundated every year, it seems most center-pin chuckers have cement in their boots. I think I’m up to double digits this year, explaining what ESN is, and why I’m catching fish and moving while most others aren’t…

    Reply
  10. Couple of thoughts on this article….One, Harley riders enjoy the ride whilst Rice Rockets are in a hurry to get “there.” Two, I been friends and fishing partners with Bob Bizak from Huntingdon forever – a far better fly fisherman than I’ll ever be. I love to watch him stand and wait patiently for some Orvis poster boy to fish a section only to have him move in after the former’s departure and rip lips like throwing pellets at Harpesters. All the while giving me the devious smile. Priceless.

    Reply
  11. Per usual, sage advice, Domenic. I will keep that in mind next time I’m in a tasty limestoner in Central PA. However, I live outside of Philly, where we can fish freestoners, sure, but we are limited in terms of trout-holding water. So, I tend to fish where I can hard, and longer than necessary, because there are no better sections to which I can move.

    Reply
    • Like Tomas, my home waters are fertile and hold decent numbers of trout but do have looonnngg stretches of less productive water and low trout densities per mile. A 3 mile stretch may only have a dozen good holding areas. The rest is lacking depth, flow, cover or all of the above. This obviously consolidates fish (and the biggest/dominant fish) in the best holding water. Normally the action is fast after a couple of drifts to adjust depth/weight. I work these thoroughly until I feel I’ve caught what the water should yield. I may overstay a bit because I know who lives there. What I have really come to enjoy is working the secondary marginal water and picking up quality fish that many walk/float past. I will fish this water quickly looking for the players.

      Reply
  12. True see guys fishing one hole for hours I fish steamer all year need to cover water

    Reply

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